Thomas Sowell


By Ray Sawhill

Mention the words right wing to your typical liberal, and he/she is likely to conjure up a Bosch-like inferno of white sheets, helmet-haired blondes, and pollution-loving industrialists. Far be it from me, a mere arts journalist, to suggest that this image does considerable injustice to a complicated phenomenon. But liberals also do themselves an injustice by contenting themselves with this distorted semi-fantasy. They deprive themselves of the provocations and contributions of some classy thinkers and writers who find a place on the right. Agree or disagree with Richard Pipes, Francis Fukuyama, Milton Friedman, or Roger Scruton, you’re likely to find more stimulation wrestling with their arguments than you are from yet another rehearsal of the lefty credo.

Add to that list the economist Thomas Sowell, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is, let it be said, a black conservative. Take a deep breath, and consider, just for a moment, the possibility that he might not be a charlatan or a sellout, but instead a brilliant man with a searching mind and a remarkable ability to let the facts guide him. There: you’ve already shown yourself to be more open than many reviewers in liberal publications have been. While such reviewers have often dismissed his writing as the biased product of a rigid ideologue, many other readers are likely to find his thinking remarkably reasonable, his arguments surprisingly free of moral arm-twisting, and his tone a model of open-mindedness and respect. (He indulges a more combative side in his newspaper columns.)

Sowell, 69, grew up in North Carolina and Harlem, “messed around” for a few years before entering college at 23, then transferred to Harvard a few years later. Has a PhD in economics from the University of Chicago. Since then he’s been researching and writing, moving between universities and think tanks. He’s an awe-inspiring workhorse with 26 books to his credit. A good place to start exploring his work is “Immigrant America,” a study of a number of America’s ethnic groups — what they came to this country with, and what they’ve done and how they’ve developed since they arrived. Like all the books of his that I’ve read, it’s patient, helpful, and informative. I wish someone had given it to me before I moved to New York; I’d have caught on to the city’s dynamics much faster than I did.

Another gem is “The Vision of the Anointed,” a discussion of America’s liberal élites and the way they picture the world. If, like me, you’re often dismayed by how intolerant, blinkered, and narcissistic liberals can be, you’re likely to be delighted by the book’s insights. It struck me as the most perceptive discussion of the élite-liberal psychology since Michael Oakeshott’s great essay, “Rationalism in Politics.”

Sowell spoke with me on the phone from L.A., where he was beginning a tour promoting his new book, “The Quest for Cosmic Justice” (Free Press), a fleet and pleasing three-essay treatment of how our dreams of fixing everything from the ground up can, and usually will, backfire. On the phone he was as considerate as he is in his books, and humorous too.


Ray Sawhill: You make a provocative distinction in your new book between cosmic justice and traditional justice. Can you spell that out for our readers?

Thomas Sowell: Traditional justice, at least in the American tradition, involves treating people the same, holding them to the same standards, and having them play by the same rules. Cosmic justice tries to make their prospects equal. One example: this brouhaha about people in the third world making running shoes — Kathy Lee and all that. What’s being said is: isn’t it awful these people have to work for such little rewards, while those back here who are selling the shoes are making fabulous amounts of money? And that’s certainly true.

But the question becomes, are you going to have everyone play by the same rules, or are you going to try to rectify the shortcomings, errors, and failures of the entire cosmos? Because those things are wholly incompatible. If you’re going to have people play by the same rules, that can be enforced with a minimum amount of interference with people’s freedom. But if you’re going to try to make the entire cosmos right and just, somebody has got to have an awful lot of power to impose what they think is right on an awful lot of other people. What we’ve seen, particularly in the 20th century, is that putting that much power in anyone’s hands is enormously dangerous. It doesn’t inevitably lead to terrible things. But certainly there is that danger.

There’s something else. I had a teacher when I was growing up as a kid back in Harlem in the ’40s who used to make us write every word we misspelled 50 times and bring it in the next day along with our homework. This is on top of the other homework we had. So if you misspelled two or three words, you were in for a long evening. Now, that was unfair. It was unfair because there were kids on Park Avenue, for instance, who were familiar with newspapers and books that used those words, and who had a much better shot at knowing what those words meant and how they were spelled than we did. But correcting that larger unfairness was never an option. It was never on the table. What was on the table was whether you were going to make these kids — us — meet standards that were going to be a little harder for us to meet. Or were you going to have make-believe fairness instead, and send them out into the world unprepared and foredoomed to failure? It seems to me the latter is infinitely worse.

I gather from your books that liberals often have a different view of what government ought to be doing than you do. What is it they want it to do?

In broad terms, they want to use government to make the world more just in the cosmic sense. They want to counterbalance the unequal starting positions of people. One recent example is the Educational Testing Service, which seemed at least for a time to be gearing towards race-norming the SATs. Now, all that does is conceal what the facts are. And it’s the facts themselves that need to be changed. If you’re serious, you want to enable people to come up to the standards. It would be terrible to pretend that they are meeting standards that they are not meeting. Because somewhere down the road these people are going to run into the real world, and the real world can be extremely unforgiving.

What role would you like to see government play, if not rectifying cosmic injustices?

I see it as making and enforcing the rules in an impartial fashion. I also don’t see the government as the one and only agency for accomplishing things. You go way back to Adam Smith, and he used to give his money and his time to help less fortunate people. That’s true also of Milton Friedman. If private individuals say we’re going to help this or that group do well, I say more power to them. But for the government to do it is a wholly different thing. Now we’re talking about building bureaucratic empires, we’re talking about making things categorically one way rather than the other. And we’re talking about taking the element of individual discretion and incremental change out of the hands of people.

When the government says they’re going to eradicate poverty, for example, it means that people who don’t choose to work will receive the same thing as people who do. Whereas if some private organization or, better yet, some private individual or family says, look, this guy is having a rough patch, let’s slip him a few bucks until he’s back on his feet, that’s a different ballgame. Many people think that if you say the government shouldn’t do something to help this or that group, you think that group shouldn’t be helped. But of course there are any number of ways it can be helped — including changing circumstances so these people don’t get into trouble in the first place.

I notice that many liberals are prone to making a certain leap. Here’s how it goes. Step one: there’s something wrong in the world. Step two: the government ought to be doing something. Have you figured out where the tendency to make that leap comes from?

No, I have not. What they notice is what in economics is called market failure. The market has failed in this or that way. And therefore — the great non sequitur — the government should step in. I like to say, if Mark McGwire strikes out, do we send in a pinch hitter the next time he comes to bat? Or do we ask the question, what if the pinch hitter should strike out? And: is the pinch hitter as likely as McGwire to hit a home run?

Many liberals seem to have great faith in government, and to see it as superior to any other agency. Have you got that puzzled out?

The government that they conceive is the ideal government. And it’s true that the ideal government will do things better than the actual marketplace. It’s also true that the ideal marketplace will do things better than the actual government. I think it should be a question of comparing the two actuals. What is the actual government likely to do, compared with what is the actual marketplace likely to do?

The fact is that it’s much tougher for the government to do many things. It’s not just that you have bad people, although sometimes you do. But even if the government were staffed wholly with honest and dedicated people there would be many things they couldn’t do well. Because the very circumstances in which they’re operating make it almost impossible for them to do those things well.

Because of the incentive structure in government?

Not only because of the incentive structure, but because of the knowledge structure. Take a simple example. You may remember the gasoline lines back in the ’70s. There were people in some places standing in gasoline lines, sometimes for hours. Meanwhile, in other places, there’s plenty of gasoline. You think: this must be bungling. It’s not bungling. What people don’t understand is that in the marketplace there are mechanisms that make the maximum use of knowledge. Texaco doesn’t know how much gasoline and at what time people are going to want it in, say, San Francisco. All they know is that the orders come in, and they just respond to that. They don’t have a clue. The important thing is they don’t have to have a clue.

But when someone is in Washington and has to allocate this gasoline, there’s no way in the world he can match what Texaco can do. First of all, in the case of the marketplace, the people who are initiating the orders are the people who are actually on the scene, in thousands of locations. In the case of the government, the person initiating the orders is someone sitting in Washington. Of course he’s going to make mistakes. The problem of allocating gasoline is enormously complicated. The fact that it’s solved in the marketplace unconsciously through a pricing mechanism doesn’t mean that its not a tough problem.

Many liberals seem to think that if weren’t for the existence of some kind of evil — sometimes racism, sometimes sexism, sometimes greed — life would be an edenic thing. We’d all blend into one uniform color and be born into the exact same circumstances. What’s your quarrel with that vision of things?

The circumstances in which people grow up are radically different. They even want different things — so even if they had equal abilities, they still wouldn’t achieve quite the same things. Everywhere I have looked around the world I have found great inequalities in performance. And yet everywhere it’s regarded as a strange thing that there are these inequalities. In Sri Lanka, they think it’s strange that Tamils have dominated commerce. It’s found strange in northern Nigeria that the Ibos have dominated many occupations. The vision is an a priori one of equality. But everywhere you look empirically you see gross differences. A classic example is basketball. Basketball does not look like America.

It’s full of really tall people, for one thing.

[Laughs] And the people who sponsor basketball games don’t look like America either. The people who own the beer companies are disproportionately of German ancestry. But when you realize that the Germans were brewing beer at the time of the Roman Empire, there’s nothing strange about it.

We think about abilities in the abstract. If you mean ability in the abstract, you’re asking: at the moment of conception, do these people have the same potentialities? Well, nobody does anything at the moment of conception. By the time they do something, years have elapsed. There’s not the slightest reason to expect that they’re going to be the same.


Egalitarianism is a word that has almost a holy aura as far as many liberals are concerned, though its meaning often isn’t explored much. Do you find egalitarianism a good thing or a bad thing?

I would be happier if the world were more equal than it is. I think most people would be. But the prerequisites just aren’t there. I also fear that in treating inequalities as grievances rather than challenges, you’re freezing many people who are less fortunate into their position. You’re giving them a bogeyman picture of the world, which can only reduce their effectiveness in moving on up the ladder.

The liberal view of the world sometimes reminds me of a religion. It has its saints and demons, and its articles of faith. When did liberalism become a kind of theology?

Well, it’s hard to say. For one thing, as a number of people have pointed out, classical liberalism was quite different than what we call liberalism today in the United States. And what we call liberalism today in the States is also different than what’s called liberal in Australia or New Zealand.

I know that Milton Friedman calls himself a classical liberal.

Hayek did too. I suspect that one of the crucial things that happened is that there were certain things that were expected to happen as a result of putting liberal ideas into operation. And when those things didn’t happen, it created a great problem for liberals. One example: the Civil Rights Act of ’64. At the time, I remember writing to a friend saying I hoped it would pass without any serious amendments. Not because I expected the act to achieve what many people expected it to achieve. I thought its failure to achieve these goals would make people reconsider, and think, no, all our problems are not caused by the things they’re thought to be caused by. They’re caused by a great number of other things. I was completely wrong in thinking this would happen. When the results didn’t follow, what liberals said instead was, we need more civil rights. It’s like in “Alice in Wonderland,” where one of the characters is trying to repair one of the watches with butter. And he’s just astonished that it isn’t working, because he’s using the finest butter.

It sometimes seems that whenever liberals spot a problem they always conclude that what’s needed is an application of further liberalism.

The problem with government programs is that no one ever says, this isn’t working, therefore we ought not to do it. It becomes instead a reason for another government program — to deal with the failure of the previous one.

What’s the allure of liberalism?

Hard to say. It means different things to different people. I suspect at least half the people at the Hoover Institution were on the left — liberals and in some case radicals — in their early 20s. I include myself. One reason is that you simply want to save people who haven’t received cosmic justice. You would like to see that rectified. And it’s only with the passage of years that many people finally understand that life doesn’t work that way. But there are other people, I think, who get a personal sense of worth and sometimes superiority from their liberal vision of the world. And they’re not going to give that vision up easily.

So you were a lefty once.

Through the decade of my 20s, I was a Marxist.

What made you turn around?

What began to change my mind was working in the summer of 1960 as an intern in the federal government, studying minimum wage laws in Puerto Rico. It was painfully clear that as they pushed up minimum wage levels, which they did at the time industry by industry, the employment levels were falling. I was studying the sugar industry. There were two explanations of what was happening. One was the conventional economic explanation: that as you pushed up the minimum wage level, you were pricing people out of their jobs. The other one was that there were a series of hurricanes that had come through Puerto Rico, destroying sugar cane in the field, and therefore employment was lower. The unions preferred that explanation, and some of the liberals did too.

I spent the summer trying to figure out how to tell empirically which explanation was true. And one day I figured it out. I came to the office and announced that what we needed was data on the amount of sugar cane standing in the field before the hurricane moved through. I expected to be congratulated. And I saw these looks of shock on peoples faces. As if: this idiot has stumbled on something that’s going to blow the whole game.

To me the question was: is this law making poor people better off or worse off? That was not the question the Labor Department was looking at. About one third of their budget at that time came from administering the wages and hours laws. They may have chosen to believe that the law was benign, but they certainly weren’t going to engage in any scrutiny of the law. What that said to me was that the incentives of government agencies are different than what the laws they were set up to administer were intended to accomplish. That may not sound very original in the James Buchanan era, when we know about Public Choice theory. But it was a revelation for me. You start thinking in those terms, and you no longer ask, what is the goal of that law, and do I agree with that goal? You start to ask instead: what are the incentives, what are the consequences of those incentives, and do I agree with those?

I notice that in New York media circles, people often prefer arguing over ideals rather than discussing what might work, or what might make incremental improvements.

Ah, being on the side of the angels. Being for affordable housing, for instance. But I don’t know of anybody who wants housing to be unaffordable. Liberals tend to describe what they want in terms of goals rather than process, and not to be overly concerned with the observable consequences. The observable consequences in New York are just scary.

You aren’t a fan of rent control?

No, I’m not. A figure I ran across recently that struck me as illustrating the moral bankruptcy of rent control is this: the number of boarded-up housing units in New York City is four times the number of homeless people on the streets. To think of that! On winter nights there are people sleeping on the cold pavement and dying of exposure, when there are these buildings that are boarded-up as a consequence of economic protectionism.

I know you’re usually referred to as a conservative. Do you refer to yourself that way?

I wouldn’t. Because if by conservative you mean trying to preserve something from the past, I have no particular reason to do that. Right now, the public schools as they exist I would not want to conserve. There are other things I would want to conserve. But conserving something just because it’s there has no appeal for me.

What would your preferred label be?

I prefer not to have labels. I suspect that libertarian would suit me better than many other labels, although I disagree with the libertarian movement on a number of things — military preparedness, for instance.

Is being a black libertarian tough? What are the assumptions people most often make about you?

Being a liberal or a conservative or a Marxist has never made that much difference in my life. But I’ve never been someone who was courting popularity. I was a Marxist during the height of the McCarthy era.

You do have a knack.

[Laughs] I missed the trend.

What’s it like for you on the right? I certainly have met racist Republicans. I ask this question for the Salon readership, many of whom are probably convinced that the Republican party is made up entirely of racists.

That’s not true, of course. Its amazing how many people on the right have for years been up in Harlem spending their money and their time trying to help the kids, including one whose name would be very familiar to you. But he hasn’t chosen to say it publicly, so I won’t either.

What are the biggest mistakes liberals make when they think about problems that afflict the black community?

One of the mistakes is to confuse moral issues with causal issues. People often attribute things to the legacy of slavery, for instance. But many of the things that are attributed to the legacy of slavery really were not as bad a hundred years ago as they are today. In the book I mention marriage rates and rates of labor force participation rate, which were higher a hundred years ago than they are today. Another example is from Washington D.C. A hundred years ago, there were only four academic high schools in Washington D.C., three white and one black. There were some standardized tests administered, and the black high school came in ahead of two of the three white high schools. It was certainly true at that time and for a long time after that Washington was a racially segregated and racially discriminatory town. But those clearly weren’t the only controlling factors. I happen to have followed that particular school on into the 20th century. From the late 30s into the mid 50s, the student body of that school ranked as good as or above the national average on IQ tests.

The passage of the ’64 Civil Rights Act is usually viewed as one of the great events of the century. Not by you?

Of course there were things that needed to be gotten rid of — the Jim Crow system in the south. My point is that people expected social and economic results which were not to be expected from that source. There’s a sweeping under the rug of black success which does not fit the ideological vision. Just recently I learned about a black man named Paul Williams. This man became an architect back in the 1920s. He was told, your people don’t have enough money to buy houses and build buildings, so you’re going to have to depend upon white people for a living, and white people are not anxious to have a black architect. But he dealt with it, and in the ’20s he began to make a name for himself. As the years went by he built homes for various celebrities and wealthy people — Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball, Cary Grant. He was part of a team that designed a building at the Los Angeles airport. For decades he was successful. Now, no one wants to talk about him. Why wouldn’t they want to? Because if you talk about him it knocks the props out from under the vision of why blacks are where they are. If it’s all due to racism, how was this man able to succeed? Was it really just dumb luck?

Similarly, when I studied that high school, which became known as Dunbar High School in later years, I was naive enough to think that — because everyone was talking about the problems of black education, what can the government do to bring good education to black kids, etc. — people would be eager to hear about it. I was saying, here’s a place where there has already been outstanding education for blacks for 85 years. Well, I was totally wrong. I published my study, and it received very little attention. What attention it did receive was largely hostile attention from the black leadership community. Why hostile? Because it was of no use to them. It didn’t justify new government programs, it didn’t show how the evils of white people were fatal to blacks. You just can’t show people succeeding in ways that undermine the vision.

I’ve met black people with positions that can only be described as libertarian or conservative, caring very much about crime control and school vouchers, for instance. Any idea how many share those outlooks?

It’s hard to say. There have been some polls taken. Certainly in the case of school vouchers, blacks are the group with the strongest support for them in the whole society. And the black leadership is almost a hundred per cent opposed to school vouchers. But it helps to look at the incentives: the success or failure of the black leadership is largely in the hands of the white liberals. They have to go along to get along.

Was there at one point more of a mesh between the black leadership and blacks in general?

Well, there’s no particular reason to think that the leadership of any ethnic group is going to be in synch with the actual desires of that group. It may be in that in certain time periods things mesh better. In the ’50s, for instance, there was a unanimity among blacks against Jim Crow that was not achieved before or since.

But time went on, Jim Crow was defeated, and you got something you see in insurgency movements of all sorts, from early Christianity to the movement to create the Interstate Commerce Commission. The initial leaders of such insurgencies go in with very little to gain and a lot to lose. But once the insurgency succeeds, the people who were concerned about the problem tend to begin to lose interest, whereas for the people who are opportunists, now is the time to move in. You attract an entirely different type of person, and there’s a change of leadership. When people complain about the decline in the quality of the civil rights leadership these days, I say, you know, if there were still 150 black people lynched every year, you’d have a higher quality leadership in the civil rights movement.


If you could knock a little something into the heads of young liberals, what would it be?

I’d like to get them to think in terms of incentives and empirical evidence, and not in terms of goals and hopes. Over the years, I’ve reached the point where I can barely bear to read the preamble of proposed legislation. I don’t care what you think this thing is going to do. What I care about is: what are you rewarding and what are you punishing? Because you’re going to get more of what you’re rewarding and less of what you’re punishing.

Many of the people on the left discuss things in terms of what they hope will be. They frame their discussions in terms of what they hope will be. Like affordable housing. We’re all for affordable housing. But when someone says affordable housing, I like to mention the words “builders” and “landlords” and see them cringe. They hate those people. But how are you going to have affordable housing if someone doesn’t build it, and someone doesn’t rent it?

Someone somewhere is standing up at this instant and saying, rising inequality — something must be done!

But inequality between whom? Between income brackets? Or between flesh and blood human beings?

You write in the new book that only three per cent of Americans spend eight years in the bottom-fifth income bracket.

That study has now been extended to 15 years. And when you stretch it out to 15 years, you find that less than one per cent of the American population is in the bottom income quintile for that duration. Add to that the fact that most of our millionaires have made their money themselves, and you realize that it’s a tremendously fluid system.

People have a hard time getting used to the fact that there will always be a bottom fifth.

Some people can’t deal with it. In New Zealand, where I was giving a talk, I remember some leftist proclaiming, we just aren’t going to accept that people have to be in the bottom fifth! [Laughs] We’re going to have to become like Lake Wobegone, where every child is above average.

If you could snap your fingers and make one big change in the world, what would give you the most satisfaction? What would really make a difference?

Do away with schools of education and departments of education. Close them down. There are fewer than 40,000 professors of education in this country, and 40 million students. That means we are ruining the education of over a thousand students in order to protect the job of each professor of education. I would think it would be one of the greatest bargains in history for us to give each professor of education a million dollars to retire.

Are departments of education a complete write-off?

They’re worse than that. They filter out highly intelligent people from the whole profession, because highly intelligent people are not going to put up with the Mickey Mouse courses that you have to take to enter the field. And once you filter these people out you’re not going to get them back in again. People talk about how we ought to raise the salaries of teachers. To me, this is like buying expensive equipment to fish for ocean fish in an inland pond. If they’re not there, nothing you do is going to bring them there.

Are you in favor of school vouchers?

I’m for any form of choice, whether it’s vouchers or tax credits or charter schools. It’s interesting, by the way, that the most childish letters I receive in response to my newspaper column come from teachers.

What do they complain about?

Any coherent answer I give you will misrepresent them because they’re so incoherent. They seem to think that they can simply make up their facts, and that they can psychoanalyze me. They like to tell me, for instance: you must have had a bad experience of teachers.

Isn’t that one unfortunate characteristic of some liberals, to go after motives rather than actually respond to the substance of an argument?

There is that. With the education people it reaches a zenith, or nadir, whatever it may be.

What’s most disappointing for you about the current right wing?

If you think about the Republican party, it’s the complete failure to articulate their position. I think the government shutdown was their greatest fiasco. Republican congressmen would come on the air and they’d start talking about OMB figures and CBO figures. Good heavens, man! Republicans complain that the media don’t get them, and so on. To me, what that says is that when you do get a chance on the media, you prepare yourself so you can really deliver a big punch. Instead, there was Dole floundering around and congressmen talking about OMB figures. They really don’t know how to communicate. In one of my columns I asked readers to name two articulate Republicans besides Ronald Reagan and Abraham Lincoln. And I don’t recall anyone naming them.

Do you credit Clinton with anything?

I credit him with being the most consummate politician in perhaps the history of the United States. I can’t think of another politician who could have survived what he’s survived. That’s nothing to celebrate, though, because what he has done has permanently harmed the image of this country. But in terms of political craftsmanship, he has all the things that the Republicans lack.

©1999 by Ray Sawhill. First appeared, in shorter form, in Salon magazine.

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Paleo Retiree

Onetime media flunky and movie buff and very glad to have left that mess behind. Formerly Michael Blowhard of the cultureblog Now a rootless parasite and bon vivant on a quest to find the perfectly-crafted artisanal cocktail.

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